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[Opinion] Japan: A “Cultural Giant”

Posted April. 24, 2005 23:36,   


These days, pop culture trends for youth spread across imaginary lines through New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and London in a manner quite similar to the spread of viruses. If a trend takes hold in one of these cities, it quickly moves on to the other three, and then it further travels to the rest of the world. Tokyo is where most trends first start. Allegedly, Japanese female high school students are the ultimate trendsetters in the fashion industry, whose pace of change is fast. The world’s fashion designers say they can get a sense of what direction the world’s fashion will go in two or three years by observing female high school students on Takeshita Street, Harajuku in Tokyo.

According to the Marubeni Research Institute’s statistics, for 10 years between 1992 and 2002, while Japan’s total exports rose by 15 percent, the country’s exports of cultural products alone rose by 300 percent. In 2002, Japan’s total cultural exports amounted to $15 billion. The number was almost twice as much as the $8.85 billion Hollywood earned by selling its movies and videos. Japan’s Finance Ministry estimates that by 2015, the sales of its cultural products will add up to $340 billion.

Japan was a military expansionist in the early 20th century, and rose as an economic giant in the 1980s. Now, in the 21st Century, Japan is making desperate efforts to become a cultural power. In fact, strategies to promote cultural export are value-added and efficient in improving their national image.

Will such strategies provide Japan with an opportunity to take an internationally prominent standing, something the country could not reach with its military and economic capabilities?

After the mid-1990s, Japan’s pop culture saw a surprising leap in exports, largely because America’s unilateral diplomacy stoked worldwide anti-American sentiment, some analyzed. In other words, compared to America, the biggest exporter of pop culture, Japan was able to offer more neutral “alternative entertainment.” Now, when it comes to exporting culture, the exporter’s image is vital. However, Japan is recently engaged in disputes with neighboring nations over its past atrocities during its era of colonization. One wonders whether the discord will affect Japan’s drive to be a cultural power if it keeps making the same noise with its neighbors.

Park Myeong-jin, Guest editorial writer, Professor of Journalism at Seoul National University, mjinpark@snu.ac.kr